Nov 06 2013

Four Raccoons Find Freedom —
And Puppy Food — at Preserve

IMG_2433The first thing one sees is their noses poking out from the large wooden box used to transport them across town to the Saeger Preserve. Perhaps they’ve caught an exciting first scent of freedom. Maybe they’re eager to explore the nearby woods.

Or perhaps they’re just hungry and grateful the SUV has stopped.

The box holds four teenage raccoons. When the cellphone call for help came into Woodlands Wildlife Refuge in late May, the raccoons were babies, no more than six inches long. Mom was nowhere in sight, and the raccoons were too young to fend for themselves.

The babies were bottle-fed, then progressed to solid food. “The first 48 hours can be rough,” says Heather Freeman, the wildlife care and volunteer supervisor for Woodlands, “because the orphan raccoon is getting used to the bottle, and it’s a transition for them. Whatever they went through with losing Mom and getting carried in the car makes for a very stressful situation for them.”

We’re together because Woodlands and the Hunterdon Land Trust have partnered to release rehabilitated animals on preserves. The relationship between land and animal is mutually beneficial: The raccoons find a home where they can thrive and are native wildlife that play a pivotal role in the native ecosystem of the preserve. Raccoons help spread seeds when foraging and are prey for other native wildlife like fox, bobcat, owls and eagles. They also help control other species; for instance they eat poison ivy berries to reduce its spread.

IMG_2441After the raccoons were weaned, they were moved to larger housing so caring for them could be as hands off as possible. Later, the raccoons were moved to an outside pre-release enclosure, the final step before getting released into the wild. Heather is releasing these raccoons at five months, the time when they become naturally independent.

Heather grabs one handle of the box, a power drill and a Tupperware container. Your friendly neighborhood Land Trust director of outreach grabs the other handle, and together we trudge up a hill winding around sticker bushes which appear all too eager to scrape the skin or poke holes in a pair of jeans. Behind us, my young daughter films our journey with an iPad.

This year Woodlands has rescued about 90 raccoons, roughly doubling last year’s total. “The increase happens every few years,” Freeman says. “It might be due to changes in the environment or maybe the after effects of superstorm Sandy that led to some habitat losses.”

We find a flat section of land and gently set down the box. You can hear the raccoons skittering about, careening against one another like nervous kids in a fun house. As gun-metal gray November clouds shroud this remote section of the Holland Township preserve, Heather directs my daughter and I to move back 20 paces. She opens the Tupperware container and tosses out several handfuls of food — a mixture of nuts, berries and puppy food. Then she fires up the drill to unfasten the screws before joining us.

And we wait. Two raccoons pop out of the box and scurry toward the food to munch away contentedly. A third raccoon clambers atop the box and looks around as if he’s surveying his new kingdom. The fourth pokes a timid head out. He appears to have no plans on leaving anytime soon, and I imagine he’s thinking that the wonders of nature are highly overrated.

IMG_2446But now having been left alone for five minutes, he slips out of the box to join his siblings for a nocturnal critter’s breakfast at 5 p.m. Heather says it’s unlikely the animals will stay together. While two may become lifelong companions, odds are they will all drift apart.

These raccoons are just four in the more than 900 that Woodlands handles each year.

“It’s a real privilege for Woodlands to have this partnership with the Hunterdon Land Trust; it’s very exciting. And this is an ideal place to release them: there are wooded areas and a stream. It’s a place where they can thrive.”

The Land Trust and many volunteers have worked hard to improve the Saeger Preserve. A forest stewardship plan was created and a boatload of invasive plants were removed. We hope to plant some native trees next spring.

As darkness descends, the raccoons disappear from view. “It’s very exciting to be able to help these animals,” Heather says looking up the hillside.

Woodlands Wildlife Refuge began in 1986, and now cares for hundreds of New Jersey’s injured and orphaned mammals and reptiles each year with the goal of releasing them back to their natural habitats.

Dave Harding,
Director of OutreachIMG_2449

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